How We Live Now
Once upon a time, I envisioned myself as a writer of prose stories. In my deluded portrait of the artist as a young man, I envisioned making some kind of actual living writing. This vision including selling of stories to real magazines that paid. Maybe even a commercial novel, or two or three, that might be acceptable to mass market originals. A market like, say, Ace Books.
I was reading tons of science fiction in those days. Good stuff like early Samuel R. Delaney, a mixed genre writer, who easily shifted from the personal to the speculative during the course of one brief novel, after the other (and grandson of the long-lived famous Delaney sisters). He was the man, I thought, (Einstein Intersection, The Motion of Light on Water , Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand...) in a long line of original writers that included guys like John Brunner, Isaac Asimov (the Foundation trilogy was just being released at that time and I devoured the series), Frank Herbert, Stranger in a Strange Land (a seminal totem of the 60’s,) Jose Philip Farmer, the Nabokov of sci fi, Stanislaw Lem (Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Solaris....) Kurt Vonnegut, and the master of them all, J. G. Ballard. It was plain to see, you could write literate, inventive, pertinent books, without selling your soul to commercial interests. I guess I didn’t read my Vonnegut closely enough.
His was a career marked by hack writing, barely readable short stories, and throw-away novels that showed flashes of the genius novel to follow. He honed his skills in the trenches, trying to earn money to support a growing family, and whatever it took to earn a buck he did it. He worked jobs he hated (if Player Piano is to be believed), and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. The job involved working at GE in Schenectady as a publicist, in their heyday before they destroyed the city, and surrounding areas, by offloading almost ninety percent of 40,000 jobs down south or to Mexico, where much cheaper labor was available.
I had delusions that I could write a magnum opus like, say, Slaughterhouse Five or Cat’s Cradle, as if I had the life experiences that Vonnegut had. His World View was shaped by disposing of bodies in Dresden, after surviving the firebombing of the city, locked in a meat locker, along with his brother prisoners of war. No wonder Vonnegut introduced elements of fantasy and science fiction into his work. When life is too unbearable to consider directly, create an alternative one that functions as a metaphor. He became a devoted pacifist and pessimist in equal measures.
Looking through my early attempt, I wonder how I ever expected any of these to see the light of day in a paying market. The presses Vonnegut and his contemporaries mined for modest fees, were almost all gone, or had changed their focus to completely mainstream writing, by the time I began my futile quest. There was no experimental, or literary writing, in the 70’s version of, say, Science Fiction and Fantasy. Despite reading it religiously (and others like Asimov’s journal and like-minded pulp fiction publications) I was slow to recognize the obvious: I wasn’t this market’s kind of writer. But I sent my stuff out anyway.
I remain fond of a couple of these stories. The best one, with a wild, checkered history, was “All the Coney Islands of the Mind”, obviously riffing on the Ferlinghetti title. The content, though, was nothing like his poetic journey through memory and literature. His was a kind of On the Road for poets. Mine was a repetitive variation on a theme, with recurrent imagery, in different contexts, traveling through a nightmarish amusement park of the mind.
In fact, a television script I wrote, based on this wholly recreated from memory, of two amusement parks, Coney Island and Rockaway Park, received serious consideration for a PBS documentary. A TV special was done on a related topic (roller coasters), eventually, not based on my script. Of course, the one made was based on actual places, while mine only existed in my imagination.
The original story “All the Coney Islands of the Mind” was accepted by the Iowa Review, then the pre-eminent literary magazine in the university press world. One of my writing heroes was the editor, Robert Coover, and his assistant editor was a graduate student, T.C Boyle. I cherished nice words from Coover, when he originally accepted it, and two regretful notes from Boyle, when they were forced to let it go, due to a cut back in funds. The story’s journey had just begun.
It was accepted as a chapbook by a small art press in Wisconsin that specialized in miniature, individual pieces, on hand made paper, illustrated by a designer. It wasn’t the Iowa Review, but it was pretty cool. After some three years, the press folded. Without doing my piece.
I sent it out again, to a then, widely respected small press journal called, Pig Iron, for their special issue on The American Dream. And golly gee, they paid. When the piece would print, which it was some four years later, due to financial issues, in the last edition of the magazine. I received a check for three dollars.
Another near miss was a programmatic text laid out like the outline for a term paper with headings and subheadings Bold Printed Newspaper Headline style. These devices served to present different, matter of fact, points of view of an axe murder that may, or may not have happened, in Central Park. Not necessarily: The Central Park but A Central Park. Which proved to be a significant distinction. (for one police department and not so much for another). That piece received a nice, handwritten, rejection from the Chicago Review, then the second most prestigious university magazine (in my mind), comparing it to the best of Beckett. Heady stuff, no?
Well, not really. I was looking for a press that did experimental fiction, so I sent it to a magazine in Alphabet City called Between C&D. Someone, presumably the female editor, judging from the handwriting, I would eventually see. She penciled in, on my original envelope, a new address forwarding it to 1 Police Plaza. I presume as a kind of joke.
That is until I received a phone call from the Schenectady Police with regard to something I had written. It was significant that Schenectady has a Central park much as NYC has one. I was working nights then, so a first-thing-in the morning call from a Police Detective, could seem very much like part of a dream. I asked the officer if I could meet him later in the day and he agreed. He seemed affable enough and none too concerned on the phone. But it was a summons to the police station. It would turn out to be a useful thing to know several of his counterparts on the Albany Police department who ( I assumed) would vouch for me.
Imagine my surprise when he shows me this piece of writing, “The Man in a Sunday Suit”. It was my opinion, that no one would mistake for an actual factual narration, given the way it was written and the format. I don’t think he seriously did either, but it had been forwarded to Him, from NYC and They, asked Him, to look into it. And ask from the City is more of a tell, assuming they wanted a follow up report. Besides the obvious, I guess the main reason he wanted to see me was to make sure I wasn’t someone who looked like Charlie Manson. It was a time in history where Charlie and his friends had been recently locked away and the whole sordid mess had been constant, horrific, current news. You never know, I guess.
So, we had a nice little chat. The officer and me. I began a sort of, relieved monologue, until I realized I was just babbling, and he was just sitting there, making little notes on a pad. I stopped talking in mid-sentence and summed up my feelings, “You do know this fiction, right?” He didn’t reply but he did make a copy of the story and filed it away, “just in case.” He gave me the original back. I expect I still have it in my archives.
I often wondered if it is still around in their archives. Now that he is long retired and has passed on. One doubts it but, as I said, you never know.
So much for free-lance writing fiction.
There are a couple of these early pieces I might consider rewriting with a more experienced eye now. One piece stands out for me of this thoroughly motley crew of writing. It is called “W for Whale” and the reason it seems readable now, is that there are elements of this satiric piece that feel, well, prophetic.
Let’s say a whale, a large one, materializes in the center of a large city. I was reading Barthelme when I wrote this, and outrageous things often happened, without explanation, in his pieces and he would just go wherever it took him. Here is how mine went:
“No one could quite explain this unusual phenomenon, and no one quite knew what to make of this whale or what to do about it. No one that is, except an enterprising young man with a few dollars to invest in raw materials and a gift for creating market interest in an already existing, unusual object.
While others were content to gape, or shake their heads as they considered the whale, this young man was busily erecting what appeared to be booths and refreshment stands in strategic areas around the newly enclosed whale. Now, people who had once been only curious what the whale was doing there, became obsessed with a need to see, and possibly learn more about it. They approached the young man, as he supervised the construction, but he would not reveal anything specific other than to say, “Tomorrow is the Grand Opening at 9 A.M. Come then and bring money.”
How is this dynamic relevant to the world of today? We have an unexplained phenomenon, one that people are inextricably involved with, and that an enterprising person, a huckster, sees as a potentially profitable situation. There is great profit to be made in a small investment, for a short-term event, by creating an artificial demand for something that was free but is now a kind of pay per view. Advertising/Marketing 101. Profit is the only motive, consequences, such as, say, public health be damned.
The scene is a kind of Floating Circus out of Kafka’s Amerika:
“The young man as determined to extract all that he could from the situation while business was good. He erected temporary floodlights so that evening hours could be observed. he added several souvenirs stands and curio booths that sold multi-colored pennants. Gradually, the area assumed the atmosphere of a carnival which greatly pleased the young man as it facilitated the spending of money.
As the weeks passed into months, the crowds thinned. The rope enclosure hung limp and useless. the pennants flapped nosily in the wind and he curio booths either closed or simply, disappeared. The young man who supervised the project was nowhere to be found.”
Like a good corporate executive, after the mine had been fully exploited, the wells run dry, the fracking station emptied, the medical supplies sold to the highest bidders, they debarked and left only the husks of their profitable exploitation for someone else to clean up. This can work for awhile like, stealing all the relief money meant for workers, and distributing it among the privileged stockholders, particularly when all regulations are removed to prevent it from happening. But while it is working, everything is wonderful. For the powers that be.
Then the whale begins to stink.
So rather than simply removing the damn thing, all sorts of liability questions arise. Like whose whale is it? Whose responsibility is it to dispose of it? Who gets to pay if someone is injure during the process?
The long hot summer begins. The whale begins to seriously stink.
The stench becomes a community health risk. People who have live nearby are sickened and are admitted to the hospital. People who have touched the whale, or even gotten close to it, or were bitten by insects, who took up residence in it, are sickened. And people who live with these people, and their out of town relatives, and friends, and just like that, there is a national health crisis.
And still the whale sits there.
There is a simple solution to this problem, but no one wants to take responsibility for it. No one wants to issue a directive, to take charge, to be the one who owns the whale.
Committees are formed to facilitate the whale’s removal. One called C.R.O.W. (Committee for the Removal of the Whale) is the most prominent one. Money is raised. Paid employees are hired. A structured organization is formed. Public service announcements appear on TV, leaflets are distributed, demonstrations (at a safe distance) are held. But mostly the whale just lies there.
Under pressure, the mayor forms a task force. He has experts draw up questionnaires. Distributes them around the city, beginning with the immediate neighbors (those who are still alive) and information is tabulated. Results are mixed: 32% want the whale removed, 30% do not, 22% either don’t know or have no opinion....
Newspapers publish the results, protests proliferate, traffic is permanently diverted from the area, police cordon off the streets, and a curfew is imposed. Daily briefings are held.
The whale sits there, and it stinks.
Hospitals are overwhelmed by disease related to the whale. Infections that no one has a name for, are commonplace. There are no cures. No one is spared. National news stations report the problem with increasing frequency, but nothing happens to the whale. Pickets outside of city hall are now a regular thing. The president of C.R.O.W. is featured on TV news broadcast, gets her photo on Time Magazine. The government appears paralyzed by inaction.
The policy of the mayor seems to be we’ll let this thing run its course and eventually it will go away. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” He says every day.
The whale stinks.
Ever been downwind of a dead whale?
Even a small one, on a beach, smells, stinks like you wouldn’t believe.
Especially when it has been sitting on a beach for weeks.
Breeding maggots and flies.
Being high protein for seagulls.
While people in charge on the island it was beached on, decide who is responsible for removing it.
In real life.
Eventually the carcass gets towed out to sea.
And it is consigned to its watery grave.
As it should be.
Art imitates life.
Or is it the other way around?
So, it goes.
And, meanwhile, in my piece, the whale still stinks.
End of story.